Layton’s legacy lives on, prairie failure and all

The New Democratic Party and its predecessor CCF love their secular saints.

CCF founder J.S. Woodsworth and first NDP leader T.C. Douglas are revered as the progressive conscience of their nation during their political years.

And late leader Jack Layton is well on his way to political beatification since his death Aug. 22, 2011.

Celebrations throughout the week and across the country are rife with tributes to his optimism, his impact on politics and his game-changing 2011 election when he led the NDP for the first time to official opposition thanks to a massive Quebec breakthrough.

New Democrat MPs, party insiders and public fans intone reverently about how he changed the way politics are played in this country or at least showed the way they could be changed — substituting optimism and hope for cynicism and divisiveness.

The outpouring of affection, nostalgia and reverence from many Canadians is a welcome break from the “a pox on all their houses” attitude many Canadians feel toward their politicians these days.

Layton’s legacy is also proof positive that in politics, it is possible to have a second, third or fourth chance to make a first impression.

While his last year was an unprecedented political triumph, the first two decades of his political life were not always stellar.

He forged a successful and prominent career as a municipal politician in Toronto and nationally, but Toronto voters thwarted his first two attempts to make it to the House of Commons in 1993 and 1997.

He became leader of the federal NDP in 2003 and an MP a year later, but the first eight years of his leadership were not spectacular. Seat counts increased in 2004, 2006 and 2008 but he continued to lead the fourth party in the House of Commons.

Even last year, during a spectacular breakthrough in Quebec, the party tide barely washed up on the shores of English Canada.

Western Canada largely turned its back and Layton became the first NDP leader in history to be shut out four elections in a row in Saskatchewan, birthplace of the party.

With successor Thomas Mulcair’s strategy of trying to hold Quebec and win Ontario by demonizing the prairie oil industry, that is not likely to change anytime soon.

And that remains a major challenge for the NDP as it purports to be a government-in-waiting. How does it re-establish a prairie base?

With little Quebec support in 2011 or prairie support in 1980, Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau respectively proved it is possible to form a majority government without representing all regions, but it is not democratically healthy.

That gets us to the Lethbridge Declaration, an attempt by prairie New Democrats to reconnect with a platform that appeals to westerners.

The slogan of the Lethbridge Declaration activists is “building a prairies breakthrough from the ground up.”

On their web page, Tristan Turner wrote that many Canadians are willing to contemplate an NDP government.

“However, many prairie Canadians have not made the same transition,” she wrote. “Albertans in particular remain staunch supporters of the Conservative party. This will remain an immense challenge to us.”

Indeed it will.

The goal of the group is to shape a prairie-friendly message and then deliver it to voters.

Election night, October 2015, will illustrate if Mulcair will carry on Layton’s legacy as a prairie political failure.


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